When it comes to voter participation, one of the biggest hurdles is getting people registered in the first place. No matter the city, there’s always a huge gap between those eligible to vote and those registered, especially when it comes to young people and people of color, as the graph below shows.
Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act, also known as the “Motor Voter Act,” in 1993, requiring DMV and social-service offices to offer voter registration forms to people applying for licenses or benefits. Now, a new ordinance out of Minneapolis expands on that idea, requiring landlords to hand out voter registration forms to tenants. The requirement kicked in on March 1, just in time for this year’s presidential race.
The idea behind the law is that people tend to forget to update their voter registration when they move to a new place. (This is one reason that jurisdictions end up with inflated voter lists, with inaccurate counts of how many people live and vote in a district.) Having landlords put registration forms into the hands of their new tenants is a practical way for making sure local election administrators have accurate voter information.
“We knew that a move would trigger a registration requirement, so the question became, ‘How do we know when someone moves?’” says Jacob Frey, the Minneapolis City Council member who introduced the ordinance. “Generally speaking, we don’t—but the new landlord certainly does.”
The city of Minneapolis provides the registration packet, which come in English, Spanish, Hmong, and Somali languages and can be emailed or handed to tenants in print form. (Frey said he looked into possible complications involving immigrant tenants who might be ineligible to vote and said the instructions written in the materials are clear about who can and who cannot register.)
At least two other cities have tried similar ordinances: Madison, Wisconsin passed one in 2012, against the wishes of local landlords associations there. The property owners brought their dissent all the way to the state legislature, which passed a bill the following year overturning the Madison ordinance. The main reason why landlords didn’t want to hand out voting materials? Meh, they just didn’t want to do it.
From a letter from the Madison Landlord Council to the city council before the ordinance passed:
This ordinance unduly interferes with our business for political purposes. We enter a contract with a tenant for the rental of an apartment. We provide significant numbers of mandated disclosures related to tenancy. We will not do your job for you. If you want your constituents to vote, you can give them the information they need to vote. …
We are mandated to give more information to a tenant to rent an apartment than is required to purchase real property. That information IS important for living in their apartments. We will not provide a form that has no relevancy to tenancy.
Having up-to-date voter registration is relevant to renting an apartment, of course, if neighborhoods are to be represented by all of the people living in them come elections time. Still, residency has long been a problem when it comes to voting rights, especially when renters are pitted against property owners. Still, landlords in Madison didn’t want to be penalized for non-compliance, which could cost them a up to a $600 fine. This was also the major gripe when the Denver suburb of Westminster attempted to pass a similar renter-voter bill in 2013, which also would’ve fined landlords who resisted. Westminster ended up killing that bill.
It’s reasonable to not want to worry about getting fined, but we’re talking about handing a few sheets of paper to renters, or emailing them a link.
For the new Minneapolis ordinance, Frey says that noncompliant landlords would first be contacted with an advisory letter that reminds them of their obligation. If the landlord still objected, that letter would be followed by a sterner letter alerting them that they’re in violation. Only after those steps would fines be levied.
Frey says he’s heard a little grumbling from Minneapolis landlords, but has confidence the ordinance will last, given that the city council passed it unanimously.
“It’s all about increasing the number of registered voters and those able to participate in democracy,” says Frey. “This is just a real simple way of giving people some additional information on how to do that.”